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Brent Northup

Just Mercy

At the Cinemark


Grade: B+

Watching “Just Mercy,” a powerful tale of a young lawyer trying to save an innocent Alabama black man from execution, reminded me of two Montana women and their pick-up truck.

Just as the millennium began, Quaker Clair Sinclair, then 80, and her young friend Eve Malo, only 73, drove across Montana in their old truck. With their friendly, almost grandmotherly, style they set out to raise awareness of the spiritual hypocrisy of the death penalty: killing as a response to killing.

John Woolman went door to door in the South to talk about the inhumanity of slavery. Clair and Eve believed, as Woolman did, that quiet dialogue is a better answer to inhumanity than violence.

In 2015 the Montana legislature came within one vote of abolishing the death penalty – most assuredly Claire and Eve were one reason why that vote was so close. When that policy is passed, and it will be, let’s hope these ladies are remembered at the signing.

In that same spirit, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) took his Harvard law degree to Alabama in 1988 and opened a nonprofit organization to provide legal services to the poor. He went to the prisons to meet death row inmates. One of those men told a story that sent a chill through Stevenson.

Walter McMillian had dozens of witnesses that placed him at a fish fry a long way from the site of the killing. McMillian was convicted when a death row inmate testified against him. That felon later recanted, and told how officials pressured him.

But still, Alabama was ready to execute McMillian.

Like Claire and Eve, Stevenson is a soft-spoken caring man who won’t lift his voice, let alone a weapon, to gain justice. Instead, he drives to rural Alabama, where McMillian lived. He meets McMillian’s friends and relatives. He dines with them and gains their trust.

When he confronts the prosecutor and sheriff with what he finds, he uses his same low-key approach. He walks softly, but carries a big heart. He’s resolute and determined, but soft-spoken.

He’s a lawyer very much in the spirit of Atticus, the attorney in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Harper Lee was born in this very town where Stevenson is working. What Stevenson learns is that the injustice faced by Atticus is sadly still very much alive, and blacks are still being persecuted and prosecuted unfairly.

Stevenson is not getting rich. These poor victims can’t afford to pay him. His Harvard degree could be turned into a very rich career, but Stevenson sees his mission as a spiritual calling, not a job. He founded the Equal Justice Initiative, “a nonprofit that combats racial and economic inequity in the criminal justice system.”

And Stevenson continued working there, helping anyone who asked.

“Just Mercy” is an inspiring story of how an elite education can be used to humbly serve others, rather than to line the pocketbooks of the Ivy League attorney. Stevenson embodies Sister Annette Moran’s wish that education transform the souls of students and send them forth to serve others. Moran taught at Carroll before leaving too soon.

Claire and Eve may well have known of Stevenson. In their own ways, Bryan, Claire and Eve were all called to the same mission: executing the death penalty, one quiet conversation at a time.

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